Why Should we Consider Restrictions on the Media?Posted OnFebruary 15, 2015 by
By Ian Morse
“I am increasingly against the internet every day.”
These are the words of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, expressed not in private but in a recent, surprisingly unrestrained conversation with a group meant to protect open information. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) revealed with this interview that the leader of Turkey believes he can rule and gain votes without the press.
What’s surprising is that he has. His party (AKP) set a record for most earned votes in the local elections in 2014 and he earned over 50% of the vote in the presidential election. The AKP has accomplished all this despite national and international outrage at their tactics to crush dissent, particularly concerning the Gezi protests in 2013.
So why should we care that many Turkish journalists feel threatened, intimidated, and unable to carry out their job with integrity? Should the international world really feel as upset as they were when Twitter in Turkey was blocked for two weeks and YouTube for two months? Why can’t a self-proclaimed democracy withhold information from its citizens if it can still garner majoritarian support?
This is the conundrum that free press advocates face. Leaders who allow citizens to be persecuted for their reporting or their opinions over the web may also have widespread support in an apparently healthy society with a strong economy. Advocates must point to the systemic problems and contradictions that underlie these superficial democracies.
The most clear reason to allow a free flow of information is to create an informed electorate. Journalists, citizen journalists, bloggers, even your Facebook news feed inform you about the world in which you live and the forces that act on you. You then use this information to make informed decisions in elections.
But your interaction with the government, your input in the government does not end with your ballot. A liberal democracy is meant to function beyond an election. Majoritarian rule means only that a government can enact whichever policies it wishes without considering the entire populace. Governments must be accountable for their actions and the first step to ensure that in a democracy is to inform the populace, throughout a government’s term.
Joel Simon, Executive Director of the CPJ calls the leaders who govern by majoritarian rule and this one-off election system “democratators,” combining democracy and dictatorship. The most efficient way for democratators to evade accountability for their actions, thereby allowing them to do much more than should be granted to them in an election, to restrict the media. A populace is then uninformed and may continue electing representatives that are placing the same burdens on them that they complain about. Restrictions on media are often precursors to moves away from liberal democracy.
Most importantly however, restrictions on the press decreases the quality of journalism and thereby the effectiveness of publishing information about those with power, whether they be governments, corporations, or drug cartels. This is the effect of fear and self-censorship. Self-censorship occurs when those who are able to publicize information either refrain from doing so or edit the information so as not to provoke those who may not like the information being publicized. Often these people are afraid that they will lose their jobs, their money, or even their sources and contacts. Self-censorship is the biggest fear of the Hong Kong Journalists Association. A columnist of a Turkish paper wrote in 2012, “Newspapers that come out daily know all that’s wrong in Turkey but are too intimidated to do proper journalism.”
This kind of intimidation does not only come from governments, because a press does not only act as a balance between citizens and government. In some towns in Mexico, powerful drug cartels have set a precedent of murdering those who publicize something that paints them in a bad light or reveals how much power they have over citizens in the towns they control. Some corporations are guilty of bribing journalists to write positive stories favoring companies and political bosses. The Philippines is an example where the quality of journalism is degraded because stories are artificially engineered and journalists are to be bought. The US may be yet another example where corporations dominate the large newspapers and TV news channels.
However, these are not black-and-white decisions and actions. The media is like any other institution and faces, as noted above, corruption and bad decision-making. Erdoğan also noted in the aforementioned interview that “Media should never have been given the liberty to insult.” “Insult” might as well have been replaced with “criticize,” and while this is clearly a drastic assertion, it raises the question about limits on publication. The Fatwa issued against those who published cartoons in Denmark mocking the Prophet Muhammad in 2005 and the recent assault in Paris by Al-Qaeda-linked gunmen are such examples that have made free speech advocates question whether absolutist free speech should have limits.
A free press is integral to healthy democracy, but there are lots of nuances to arguments for either side of this freedom. Key terms need to be empirically defined and perspectives fully evaluated. While this article has focused on the state of the press in the world, this series will over the course of the Spring tackle the global question of freedom of expression, with a focus on Turkey.
 Simon, Joel. The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.
 Committee to Protect Journalists. Turkey’s Press Freedom Crisis: The Dark Days of Jailing Journalists and Criminalizing Dissent. Report. New York: United Book Press, 2012.
 Simon, The New Censorship, 190.
 Simon, The New Censorship, 137.